John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Never stab the devil in the back
‘How good to see you again so soon, Mr. Wick,’ states the über-cool Charon (Lance Reddick), the hotel concierge of the Continental, a (fictional) hallowed-type establishment that works as neutral territory for hired guns and hitmen. Well, not nearly soon enough if you live in Australia, the second installment of the Keanu-Reeves-starring 2014 sleeper hit delayed ‘indefinitely’ for months (the film released over in the States way back in mid-February). At one point, it was even rumored that John Wick: Chapter 2 would never see the light of day, theatrically speaking; the movie’s distributor shifting from Roadshow to eOne, before finally finding a home at Studio Canal. Look, at least the good folks in Oz Land are, at long last, getting a chance to see the flick in cinemas, and John Wick 2 deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible as this follow-up is simply one of the best sequels, and all-out actioners, to come out in years, its balls-to-the wall attitude and slick organized carnage making for two-plus solid hours of fist-pumping entertainment!
This second ‘chapter’ of the Wick franchise opens up with a kick-ass prologue re-introducing audiences to the titular boogie-man, with super-assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) going to retrieve his glorious ’69 Mustang Coupe from some murderous Russian mobsters, his beloved vehicle stolen in the prior flick. It’s here that Wick is, once again, forced to unleash his killer skills, the mayhem starting out on the streets of New York — in a batshit bonkers ‘car-fu’ demolition derby — before moving inside of a sleek chop shop owned by gangster Abram Tarasov (a scenery-chewing Peter Stormare) — brother of Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) and uncle of Iosef (Alfie Allen), the antagonists from the original film — Wick laying the hurt on Tarasov’s goons via some tightly choreographed hand-to-hand combat; it’s impressive to note that these one-take fight sequences refrain from heavy edits or cutaways. And just like that, this adrenaline-fueled opener instantly sets the tone — it’s clear that returning director Chad Stahelski is determined to up the antae, giving viewers exactly what they’ve come to see, and that is wall-to-wall, blood-soaked action.
From here, we learn that not a lot of time has passed since the events of the previous chapter; John Wick has gotten himself a brand new dog (this time a pit-bull) and his retirement, and quiet civilian life, seems to be back on track. Well, that’s until the night an old associate shows up on his front doorstep. Enter Italian mafia boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a man who’d aided John with an ‘impossible task’ in the past, which, way back when, allowed him to quit the professional gunman business and marry his now-deceased wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). Unfortunately for John, Santino returns to cash in on an irrevocable favor, being in possession of a golden ‘marker,’ this medallion symbolizing an unbreakable blood-oath, one that all underworld figures are forced to honor — a rule standing right beside ‘no killing on Continental grounds.’ John, however, respectfully declines, stating that he is no longer involved in that line of work. But Santino doesn’t take rejection lightly, as he retaliates by destroying John’s modish home, literally blowing it to smithereens with a rocket launcher.
Angered and enraged, the pistol-welding Wick heads straight to New York City’s Continental headquarters to see the kingpin of the marksman society, Winston (Ian McShane), who reminds John that the ancient code must be respected and adhered to, as violation was considered unforgivable and failing to comply would ultimately result in John’s ‘excommunicado.’ Bound by the marker, John reluctantly accepts Santino’s assignment and jetsets to Rome: his mission, to eliminate Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini), Santino’s bigwig sister, so that her power-crazed brother could claim her seat on the ‘High Table,’ an international council of criminal syndicates. Now, armed to the teeth, John must pull off the unthinkable, and that is penetrate heavy Camorra security and eliminate the ruthless Gianna, as paying off his sworn debt would mean that John would be free to seek vengeance on Santino, who’d taken everything from him, having burned his house to the ground — but hey, at least he didn’t kill John’s dog!
With an explosive mix of gunplay and martial arts — think Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo — John Wick: Chapter 2 is a hard-core action junkie’s wet dream, this subsequent ‘episode’ maintaining the tone, and dry sense of humor, of its competently carved predecessor. Broadening the scope while simultaneously raising the stakes (and sheer absurdity), the screenplay by Derek Kolstad — who penned the initial outing — goes for a ‘bigger and badder,’ beefed-up approach, the movie’s body count soaring from a decent 84 kills to a whopping 141 (or these abouts) — now that’s how you make a sequel. Expanding the (dare I say) Wick-verse, Kolstad’s script builds upon the veiled underbelly world (which was hinted at in the first picture) exploring its lore and mythology, the narrative focusing chiefly on the Continental, a secret organization of contract killers that dates back centuries, the story fleshing out the codes, customs and conducts of this mannered sharpshooter guild — we also get to visit the European branch, Il Continentale, the organization clearly global. And oh, we learn that the shadowy underworld have some funky tattoo-clad, ’50s-style secretaries on their payroll, too!
Keeping with the theme of revenge, proceedings are a little more emotional this second time over, with John Wick, who’s inadvertently thrust back on to the wrong side of the law, remaining empathetic throughout his entire ordeal, Hollywood nice-guy Keanu Reeves finding that delicate balance between Wick’s gentler ‘civilian’ side and his hard-edge lethal ways. Proving he’s still up for the challenge, the 52-year old Reeves sells all aspects of the role, convincingly portraying a deeply conflicted guy — who’s still a man of few words — whose life is more or less governed by a strict set of rules, those laid out by his ex-employer. What’s more, filmmakers ensure that our anti-hero — dodging bullets and blades — is constantly in his element, exercising his killer instincts, the all-round slaying machine compelled to use everything around his as a weapon, Wick snapping bones and firing countless shells at the noggin, the film containing enough bloody headshots to fill one’s yearly quota.
Directed by ex-stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, John Wick: Chapter 2 really stretches the canvas, both narratively and visually, the amped-up budget allowing filmmakers to transport the stylistic scuffles to a range of dazzling locales, Stahelski propelling the storyline into the international arena; from NYC’s Rockefeller Center rooftop to La Galleria Nazionale, situated in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome, the latter serving as the site for a turbulent, well-designed final-act showdown, one that takes place at an art exhibit that hosts a cool mirror-room ‘funhouse.’ Beautifully illuminating the sets and spots, the imagery by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Crimson Peak (2015), is bright, bold and bursting with spunk, the vistas merging ancient Renaissance-type architecture with chic ultra-modern structures, which, when combined, highlight the Continental’s vast wealth and long-running history, the movie still retaining the former’s comic-book-esque, neo-noir vibe.
To top it all off, scribe Kolstad and Stahelski (who hails from the world of kick-boxing) have dreamt up a handful of thrilling, highly inventive kill-or-be-killed scenarios, these reminiscent of revered Indonesian action gem The Raid (2011). There’s a silencer duel to rival all others, which (I kid you not) takes place on a crowded NYC subway station platform, and a couple of gruesomely giddy pencil kills (that pretty much verify a rumor dropped in the pre-credit sequence), with the corker, a $7 million ‘hit’ on Mr. Wick himself, a showpiece that sees every murderer, shooter and hatchet man (and woman) attempt to end Wick’s life, only to fail in spectacular fashion, these wildly kinetic kung-fu and ‘gun-fu’ smackdowns standing as some of the most hard-hitting ever committed to screen.
Alongside our indestructible front man, Ian McShane, Death Race (2008), and John Leguizamo, Romeo + Juliet (1996), also reprise their roles, McShane playing Winston, the intimidating yet noble leader of the Continental, and Leguizamo, Wick’s trusted confidant and mechanic, Aurelio, both stars clearly devoted to advancing these characters. Joining the cast of trigger-happy hunters is Riccardo Scamarcio, Burnt (2015) — dubbed the George Clooney of Italy — the 37-year old heartthrob crafting a truly detestable villain in Santino D’Antonio, his natural swagger infusing the devious evildoer with a slick and twisted arrogance. Rapper/ musician-turned-actor Common, Smokin’ Aces (2006), is fun as trained Camorra killer Cassian, Gianna’s head bodyguard, who becomes a serious thorn in our protagonist’s side, Wick tasked with eliminating his boss, Ms. D’Antonio, embodied by Italian bella Claudia Gerini, The Passion of the Christ (2004). Then there’s Ruby Rose, xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017), as mute assassin Ares, Santino’s hard-as-nails security chief, her playful gestures and silent banter with adversary Wick supplying some welcome respite and levity. Last, but certainly not least, we have Laurence Fishburne, who’s reteamed with Matrix co-star Reeves, the veteran actor adding a new dimension to this gangland universe as The Bowery King, the figurehead of a network of ‘homeless’ gunmen who operate on the streets of New York City, Fishburne bringing a sense of dignity, charge and strength to the cryptic monarch — if anything, it’s awesome to see Reeves and Fishburne sharing the screen again!
With the creative team behind the lens working tirelessly to bring this fierce and fiery vision to life, and the on-screen performers wholly relishing their roles, John Wick: Chapter 2 simply ‘kills it!’ — it’s a straight-up, no ‘BS’ action flick, the pace remaining at full throttle with the deaths coming in hard and fast, the movie accessible to fans of the series and newcomers alike. Concluding with a finale that suggests ‘all best are off’ for the inevitable third entry, I’m keen to see where the story might lead, the John Wick saga shaping up to be one hell of a blast. But honestly, bad guys should really just stop messing with the dude … like, seriously!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner